‘Landfill’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates, Joyce Carol 2006

Landfill by Joyce Carol Oates, 2006

The magic trick:

Shifting the chronology and point of view to emphasize the maze of people and events that led to tragedy in the story

Here we go back to the wacky world of Joyce Carol Oates, who has access to a seemingly infinite supply of ideas in the category of heinous things people do to one another. Sometimes her stories feel a little trashy in their tabloid-news-magazine-shock-of-the-week topics. Here, in “Landfill,” she goes to a whole new level of trashiness – with a dead body mangled by a trash compactor and dumped in a landfill. Lovely.

Of course there is genius behind the gruesome. Oates is always seeking to sort out the assignment and meaning of blame. Horrible things happen. Why? And whose fault is it?

This story hunts for those answers in especially interesting fashion. The entire thing is one paragraph – no line breaks. Even more crucially, the point of view and sense of chronology shift all over the place with no warning. It keeps the reader’s head on a swivel, constantly shifting the judging eye on a whole cast of characters. In the end, they’re all to blame. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

Maybe it isn’t funny, or is it? Scoot Campos has fine-honed a reputation at the Phi Ep house as a joker, funniest goddam pledge. The other pledges are losers, but Scoot Campos is a wrestler, he’s witty and wired. And good-looking, in that swarthy Hispanic way, with dark wavy hair, a solid jawline, and a fleshy mouth. Funny like somebody on Comedy Central, except Scoot makes it up himself, improvises. A few beers, some tequila, and Scoot isn’t tongue-tied and sweating but witty and wired. By coincidence it’s Newman’s Day, the twenty-fourth of the month, named for the actor Paul Newman—Scoot doesn’t know why, nobody knows why, and the challenge is to chug twenty-four beers in some record time, and, of course, there’s tequila at the party, too. Scoot has acquired a taste for tequila! If he’d known about tequila in fucking high school, he might’ve had a goddam better time.

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